Iran protests could hurt clerics but Rouhani has most to lose, say insiders

President Hassan Rouhani
Updated 03 January 2018
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Iran protests could hurt clerics but Rouhani has most to lose, say insiders

DUBAI: Iranian authorities are concerned that nationwide unrest will undermine the clerical establishment and want to stamp out the protests quickly, senior regime officials say. But the person with the most to lose is President Hassan Rouhani.
While several senior officials said there was concern that prolonged unrest would damage the legitimacy and influence of the country’s religious leaders, few insiders see the unrest as an existential threat to that leadership, which has ruled since the 1979 revolution and is now controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate authority in Iran’s system of dual clerical and republican rule.
The biggest loser, they say, is likely to be Rouhani, who is much more closely tied to the country’s economic policies.
“Of course, Rouhani and his government will have less power afterward, especially because his economic policy was criticized during the unrest,” said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.
“He will be a lame-duck president and Khamenei will have more power.”
Much of the protesters’ anger has focused on what Rouhani and his government have failed to deliver: An economic boom promised as the payoff for the 2015 deal that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in return for world powers lifting sanctions.
Protesters are angry that Iran’s youth unemployment rate is edging toward 30 percent, want higher wages and an end to alleged graft. They have chanted slogans against all of Iran’s leaders, including the clerical elite, and attacked police vehicles, banks and mosques as the unrest widened.
“The continuation of the protests will lead to a legitimacy crisis,” said one senior official close to Rouhani, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
“People have economic demands... of course these demands should be taken seriously... of course the establishment should listen to the people, but all these can be discussed in a calm atmosphere,” the official said.
Some conservatives have pushed for a hard-line approach, even though bloodshed could fuel more protests in the largest wave of demonstrations since nationwide unrest in 2009.
“So far, security forces have not tried to prevent the demonstrations... but this will change if (Khamenei) calls for an end to the street protests and demonstrators defy his call,” said one former Iranian official from the reformist camp.
Even if the unrest is quelled, the demands of tens of thousands of restless working-class youths who have taken to the streets are unlikely to dissipate.
Khamenei spoke publicly for the first time about the crisis on Tuesday, accusing Iran’s enemies of stirring unrest but saying no more. A statement on his website said he would address the nation about the events “when the time is right.”
The protesters have little chance of toppling the clerical leaders, who appear to be retaining control of the military, police, and security forces and have no compunction about using them, according to one US official following the developments.
Rouhani, who was elected in 2013, is more exposed. He is seen as a pragmatist at odds with Iran’s hard-liners and has said in response to the protests that Iranians have a right to criticize the authorities.
But he has a fight on his hands because of growing resentment over high prices and allegations of corruption.
“His power is limited in Iran’s ruling system. Public discontent is increasing ... people are losing their faith in the establishment system,” a third Iranian official said. “The leaders are well aware of this fact and its dangerous consequences.”
US officials fear the likeliest outcome of the protests is discrediting what one called Rouhani’s “moderate brand of moderation” and a harsher crackdown by the clerical authorities.
“It’s an open question whether Rouhani ever intended to keep any of his promises, but he hasn’t delivered, especially on the economic front, and that means he has no popular support and is expendable to Khamenei,” said a second US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
“He’s likely to be one of the casualties, though maybe not immediately.”
Rouhani has blamed his predecessor and the US, Iran’s long-time adversary, for the economy’s shortcomings.
But his government has also backtracked on planned fuel price rises and promised more jobs.
Rouhani may need to spend more money to create more employment if he is to ease discontent and could risk antagonizing powerful interests if he tries to address allegations of corruption.
His vulnerability and the deep divisions in Iran’s hierarchy have fueled suspicions among some of his sympathizers that conservative rivals may have played a hand in the crisis.
“It was a coup against Rouhani and his achievements ... The aim was to harm Rouhani,” said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst close to the pro-reform movement.
But a fourth official in Tehran said the nationwide protests had united Iran’s leadership.
“At this point, it is not important whether a political faction initiated the unrest to harm the rival group,” the official said. “The unrest was hijacked by our enemies ... that is why all factions have united to protect the Islamic Republic.”


UN to deliver aid to Syrians trapped near Jordan border

Updated 19 October 2018
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UN to deliver aid to Syrians trapped near Jordan border

  • An estimated 50,000 women, children and men are stranded at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian border
  • Jordan has allowed several humanitarian aid deliveries to the area following UN requests, but the borders remain closed

DAMASCUS, Syria: The UN said it was organizing a joint aid convoy with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to tens of thousands of Syrians stranded in the desert near the Jordanian border.

The world body said the convoy would deliver “humanitarian assistance to an estimated 50,000 women, children and men who are stranded at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian border.”

“The overall humanitarian situation inside the Rukban camp is at a critical stage,” said Ali Al-Za’tari, the UN’s top official in Damascus.

Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, said the world body was “deeply concerned over the deteriorating humanitarian situation” at the camp.

A suicide bombing claimed by Daesh in June 2016 killed seven Jordanian soldiers in no-man’s land near the nearby Rukban crossing.

Soon afterwards, the army declared Jordan’s desert regions that stretch northeast to Syria and east to Iraq “closed military zones.”

The kingdom, part of the US-led coalition fighting Daesh, has allowed several humanitarian aid deliveries to the area following UN requests, but the borders remain closed. 

The camp, home to displaced people from across Syria, also lies close to the Al-Tanf base used by the US-led coalition fighting IS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the camp suffers from a severe lack of food and medicines, compounded by its remote desert location, the closure of the Jordanian border and regime forces cutting off all roads to it.

The last delivery of UN aid to Rukban took place in January 2018 through Jordan.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF last week urged warring parties in Syria to allow basic health service deliveries to the camp, saying two babies without access to hospitals had died there within 48 hours.

On Thursday, UN humanitarian aid expert Jan Egeland confirmed the regime had agreed to allow convoys of aid to the Rukban area.

He said Russian officials had told him Syria’s regime had withdrawn a controversial law that allowed for authorities to seize property left behind by civilians who fled fighting in the country’s civil war.

Egeland of the office of UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also confirmed he will leave his post in November. 

He spoke a day after de Mistura told the UN Security Council that he is leaving for “personal” reasons.

The envoy said that he will make a final effort before stepping down next month to advance toward a new constitution for Syria — a key step in ending the country’s civil war.

De Mistura announced at the end of a Security Council briefing that he is leaving the job in late November for “purely, purely personal reasons” related to his family after four years and four months in one of the toughest UN jobs.

He told council members that objections by the Syrian government are still holding up the launch of the committee meant to draft a new constitution.

While there is agreement on the 50-member government and opposition delegations for the drafting committee, de Mistura said the government objects to a third 50-member delegation that the UN put together representing Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women.

De Mistura said he has been invited to Damascus next week to discuss the committee’s formation.

He said he also intends to invite senior officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran — the guarantor states in the so-called “Astana process” aimed at ending the violence in Syria — to meet him in Geneva, and to talk to a group of key countries comprising Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the US.